By Jeff Seldin
U.S. officials watching armed Taliban fighters move into the Afghan capital of Kabul say American forces “firmly control” the U.S. embassy and the city’s international airport, even as the top U.S. diplomat described the scene as “heart-wrenching.”
Taliban leaders declared victory Sunday in the lightning-like offensive as the last of the Afghan security forces melted away, leaving the gates to the Afghan capital open to the insurgent forces.
But despite claims by Taliban that their fighters were securing parts of the capital, a U.S official told VOA that the U.S. embassy itself, as well as Hamid Karzai International Airport, were safe.
“Our forces continue to flow in and firmly control HKIA [the airport] and the embassy,” the official told VOA on condition of anonymity.
The leading edge of three U.S. infantry battalions, some 3,000 troops, began arriving in Kabul Friday. On Saturday, U.S. President Joe Biden authorized another 1,000 to head to Afghanistan, as Taliban forces crept ever closer to the Afghan capital.
Still, it appears the U.S. is not intending to hold the grounds of its embassy in Kabul for long.
An official at the embassy confirmed to VOA that staff are being relocated to a secure location at the airport to help oversee flights out and to be ready to evacuate themselves.
An alert from the embassy also warned that the security situation was changing rapidly, and that U.S. citizens in Kabul should shelter in place after reports that the airport was taking fire.
NATO Sunday said it was doing what it could to help at the airport.
“We are helping to maintain operations at Kabul airport to keep Afghanistan connected with the world,” a NATO official told VOA, adding the alliance was, for the moment, maintaining its diplomatic presence in Kabul.
“The security of our personnel is paramount, and we continue to adjust as necessary,” the official added.
A senior administration official told VOA Sunday that Biden, who has been spending the past few days at Camp David, a presidential retreat outside of Washington, has been updated on the latest developments, including the evacuation of U.S. personnel and Afghan special immigrant visa applicants.
“This morning, the president and vice president met by secure videoconference with their national security team to hear updates on the drawdown of our civilian personnel in Afghanistan, evacuations of SIV applicants and other Afghan allies, and the ongoing security situation in Kabul,” the White House official told VOA on background.
“The president and vice president met with Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken, Secretary (of Defense Lloyd) Austin, Chairman (of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark) Milley, (CIA) Director (William) Burns, Director (of National Intelligence Avril) Haines, National Security Advisor (Jake) Sullivan, Ambassador (Ross) Wilson (the U.S. chargé d’affaires), (U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation) Ambassador (Zalmay) Khalilzad, General (Kenneth) McKenzie, and other senior officials.”
Blinken on Taliban advances
Events unfolded rapidly as the United States’ top diplomat called the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the imminent fall of Kabul “heart-wrenching stuff.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken Sunday said the safety of U.S. personnel, some of whom are still at the embassy, and Afghan helpers was “Job No. 1,” fending off criticism that Washington was unprepared for the rapid collapse of Afghan forces.
The U.S. will “do everything we possibly can for as long as we can to get them out if that’s what they want,” Blinken told CNN’s State of the Union.
“We haven’t asked the Taliban for anything,” Blinken added. “We’ve told the Taliban that if they interfere with our personnel, with our operations, as we’re proceeding with this drawdown, there will be a swift and decisive response.”
Blinken also defended the U.S. administration’s decision to move forward with the withdrawal of U.S. forces despite concerns that the Taliban might seek to take the country by force.
“Like it or not, there was an agreement that the forces would come out on May first,” he said. ”Had they not only not begun that process, which is what the president did and the Taliban saw, then we would have been back at war with the Taliban.”
Blinken said a renewed war with the Taliban would have required the U.S. to send in “tens of thousands” of additional forces given “the hollowness of the Afghan security forces.”
US lawmakers react
Some lawmakers Sunday reacted angrily to the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
“The unmitigated disaster in Afghanistan — the shameful, Saigon-like abandonment of Kabul, the brutalization of Afghan women, and the slaughter of our allies — is the predictable outcome of the Trump-Biden doctrine of weakness,” Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
“History must be clear about this: American troops didn’t lose this war — Donald Trump and Joe Biden deliberately decided to lose,” Sasse added.
President Biden’s withdrawal plan is a continuation of a proposal set in motion by his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump. The Trump administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in return for the insurgents ending attacks on Americans and entering into talks with the Afghan government.
But the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Sunday the onus falls squarely on the Biden administration.
“They totally blew this one. They completely underestimated the strength of the Taliban,” Representative Michael McCaul told CNN’s State of the Union. “They didn’t listen to the intelligence community because every time I got an I.C. briefing assessment it was probably the grimmest assessment I’ve ever heard on Afghanistan.”
In contrast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement commending President Biden for “the clarity of purpose of his statement on Afghanistan and the actions he has taken.”
The top Democrat in the House of Representatives also warned the Taliban that “the world is watching its actions.”
“We are deeply concerned about reports regarding the Taliban’s brutal treatment of all Afghans, especially women and girls,” Pelosi said. “The U.S., the international community and the Afghan government must do everything we can to protect women and girls from inhumane treatment by the Taliban.”
Still, outside observers cautioned that the fallout from Afghanistan could have a lingering impact on the Biden White House.
“Biden has a process problem in the national security structure. That is part of the reason we have seen events play out so tragically in Afghanistan. They are far too insular and don’t take on board enough input from institutional experts,” Brett Bruen, a former director of global engagement in the Obama White House, told VOA on Sunday.
Biden “needs to take a long hard look at what went wrong and more importantly how things need to change. It should start with his national security advisor. If nothing changes, I fear we will see more avoidable adversity,” added Bruen, president of the Global Situation Room, a crisis management consultancy.
(Steve Herman and Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.)